Italy: the CGIL prepares to go it alone - A new general strike on October 18

After the government had reached an agreement with the other two trade union federations (CISL and UIL), the main federation, the CGIL, under the pressure of millions of workers, is preparing to organise another general strike for October 18. This time Cofferati is forced to go it alone. This will be the first time since 1968 that Italy will experience a "non-unitary" strike.

The CGIL has called a new general strike for October 18. After the government had reached an agreement with the other two trade union federations (CISL and UIL), the main federation, the CGIL, under the pressure of millions of workers, is preparing to organise another general strike. Unlike April 16, this time Cofferati is forced to go it alone. This will be the first time since 1968 that Italy will experience a "non-unitary" strike.

The huge demonstration on March 23 (with over 2 million workers taking part), also organised by the CGIL on its own, was on a Saturday, a non-working day and therefore did not involve strike action which blocked production. This new strike is a continuation of the struggle against Berlusconi's attempts to abolish article 18 of the Workers' Statute (i.e. the article which makes it illegal for bosses to sack workers without a justified cause). But it also poses the demand for large wage increases and is opposed to Berlusconi's new budget, which includes cuts in public spending to the tune of 20 billion euros.

This movement is having a political impact on all the organisations of the labour movement. On the one hand we have Rifondazione Comunista which has proved to be unprepared for an intervention in the mass, trade union organisations. That is because Bertinotti over the past period has directed all the attention of the party towards the anti-globalisation movement.

At the same time, enormous contradictions are developing inside the Left Democrats (DS). The majority of the social-democratic leadership of the party, in the words of Gavino Angius (leader of the DS group in the Senate) has stated that the CGIL general strike is a mistake because it puts an end to trade union unity. However, the left of the DS are lining up behind Sergio Cofferati, who has just come to the end of his 8-year term of office as general secretary (this is a rule in the CGIL's statute books). He has been replaced by Guglielmo Epifani, who immediately stated that he intends to follow in the footsteps of Cofferati.

An interesting development is what we saw on September 14. There was a demonstration of 300,000 people on the streets of Rome, mobilised by left wing intellectuals and actors. This movement, in spite of its petit bourgeois leaders, has criticised the leadership of the DS from the left and has managed to bring to the surface all those tensions that had accumulated among left activists over a period of a decade. That was the period when the leadership of the DS was in government with remnants of the old Christian Democracy and was carrying out the policies of big business. The "Olive Tree", the centre-left coalition, is entering more and more into crisis. It is coming under pressure from two opposite directions. On the hand there is the working class, and on the other there is the big bourgeoisie which, due to the economic crisis, is demanding more and more attacks on the rights of the working class.

Sergio Cofferati is thus preparing to play a role in deepening these contradictions by putting forward his alternative to the line of D'Alema and Fassino (secretary of the DS). In practise he is calling for a return to the Delors Plan and to the ideas of Keynes. These are the classical ideas of the 1960s Social Democracy. The difference is that present day economic conditions leave little room for such policies.

Cofferati is clearly planning to become the new leader of the Italian left and to remove D'Alema. That explains why he has demagogically stated that once his term of office in the union is finished he will "return to work for Pirelli", the company he was working for 25 years ago when he became a union official.

This increases his prestige among the workers. He is waiting for the conditions to ripen for his entry into the political arena. And he is doing so with the full backing of the CGIL apparatus which is also preparing (this includes the "left" of the CGIL which has completely capitulated to Cofferati and has abandoned any of the criticisms it previously had of him).

The workers have illusions in Cofferati, but they are going to have to learn a hard lesson. Cofferati is still sticking to his reformist ideas. He supports the European Union and the Maastricht Treaty. His plans are to continue the alliance with bourgeois forces, but with a so-called "renewed Olive Tree".

In the coming months a whole series of labour agreements will expire. One of these is that of the engineering workers. For the first time in 20 years the FIOM (the CGIL's engineering workers' section) is demanding wage increases of 8%. This comes after years of wage freezes.

The Italian bourgeoisie is terrified of the consequences of such demands. In the past the situation was different, but now they cannot cancel out the effects of wage increases through double-digit inflation. Also, the introduction of the euro means that they can no longer use devaluation to get a competitive edge. It is precisely this situation that is the source of a serious crisis at Fiat and many other companies, which is forcing them to make cutbacks and to reduce the workforce.

In the coming period Italy could be facing a deep recession. All the conditions are there. Given the events that have taken place over the past year, this could have an explosive effect. It could radicalise the labour movement and the youth. The fact is that in spite of the huge numbers that took part in the strikes this spring the process of radicalisation was only in its early stages.

Up until now the level of militancy in the factories had actually been quite low. Workers were prepared to take part in nationwide general strikes and demonstrations but the level of conflict at local level was still quite low. This could now explode with a vengeance, with the new layer of young casualised workers coming to the forefront. We have already witnessed several marvellous struggles. The dispute of the TIM (Mobile Telecom) workers in Bologna is an important example. The young workers on temporary labour contracts managed to get a union structure recognised and also made very important gains. This was also thanks to the key role played by a Marxist union official. The CGIL in Bologna were terrified at the way this struggle was becoming a major focal point in the movement. So they removed the official from his position, thus deflating the movement.

The fact is that while the bureaucracy of the CGIL does organise disputes at the same time it takes great care in making sure that it does not lose control, and that they remain strictly within the confines of a reformist and class-collaborationist perspective. The task of communists is to intervene inside the trade unions and to struggle to bring to an end this policy of class collaboration and replace it with militant revolutionary trade unionism.

Fausto Bertinotti, secretary of Rifondazione Comunista, has been blinded by Cofferati's "shift to the left" and has therefore suspended any of his previous criticisms. However, the Marxist opposition gathered around the journal FalceMartello, is present in the workplaces, in the trade union meetings, and in party meetings. It is stressing the need to sharpen criticism of the CGIL leaders. It is not enough to simply call strikes. They should be offering a real way out of the crisis of capitalism, something that they clearly are not doing.

What is needed is a strong revolutionary vanguard to emerge from the present wave of militancy. Italy is moving inexorably towards a new hot autumn. Only with a revolutionary leadership will this movement be able to finally put an end to the miseries of capitalism.

The reawakening of the labour movement in Spain, Britain, Greece and France clearly indicates that a new pre-revolutionary period is opening up before us. This will be a period in which the workers of the world will once more take their rightful place at the head of the movement for the revolutionary socialist transformation of society.